By Philip Pearce
A chorus of groans usually fills the theater when that notice flutters out of your program stating that in tonight’s performance Rosalind Russell or Henry Fonda will be replaced by . . .
Squelch those groans, I say. This long lamented audience nightmare is fraught with possibilities. Back in the 1930s, Hope Williams’ understudy in the original production of Holiday was Katharine Hepburn. Some years later, Martha Scott’s for Our Town was Dorothy Maguire. A couple of decades after that Ralph Meeker’s in Picnic was Paul Newman.
So, just for a change, let’s hear it for understudies.
Last weekend, by chance or fate—or whatever you may call it—I saw two local productions both featuring creditable last minute substitutes in leading roles.
I had booked tickets for the second Friday of Magic Circle’s production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People, but a phone message from the box office was ‘very sorry but’ the Friday show was cancelled. James Brady, cast to play Mike, had been taken to the hospital for emergency surgery. A replacement would take over the role but not until the following night, so I rebooked for then and looked for another Friday show.
Ah! Paper Wing, just down the boulevard in Monterey, was opening a two-hander called Nerve about Elliot and Susan, a couple of online acquaintances meeting for their first face-to-face date. Seated expectantly in the tiny Fremont Street auditorium, we were told that Courtney Haas-VanHorn, who should have been playing Susan, had been taken ill. Those wanting to rebook in hopes of seeing her at a later date, could make ticket exchanges at the box office. About half the audience shuffled out to re-negotiate. The rest of us were told that the role of Susan would be played tonight by the director, Kate Bradley Faber, for those who cared to stay. I’m glad I was one of them.
It was evident pretty quickly that Adam Szymkowicz’s hour-long one-act was no barrage of easy one-liners. The script stands or falls on unstinting, perceptive and perfectly timed character acting from its two performers. It was my first evening, online or anywhere else, with Ms Bradley Faber and it took about thirty seconds for her to win me hook, line and sinker. She had, of course, a director’s advance detailed knowledge of the script, which she carried as a kind of security blanket. She surreptitiously turned pages but never once seemed to have to look at the text. She was funny, she hit all her timing right on the button and even performed with effortless ease the role’s demanding choreography: turns out Susan is a gal who acts out her private social and sexual repressions in weird and hilarious modern dance routines. Skillfully matched by the intense and resourceful Richard Westbrook as her psychotic control freak boyfriend Elliot, Ms Bradley Faber deserved bouquets from a full house of fans, but there were only a handful of us and nobody had brought flowers, so all we could do was applaud and applaud and applaud some more.
The replacement for James Brady in Good People turned out to be D. Scott McQuiston, a gifted and experienced local actor who knew the show from having created its sound design and operating its sound board throughout rehearsals. Compared to the amusing but one-track action of Nerve, Good People is a minefield of small and big ironies in its look at the jolts and pitfalls of repressed class warfare. Of all the complicated characters in this layered piece, Mike is the most complex: a guiltily upwardly mobile recruit from seedy South Boston to classy Chestnut Hill, he is focused on making all the accepted yuppie choices but ultimately brutally unmasked by the events of the plot. Armed with an acting copy of the script, McQuiston wisely aimed at playing Mike for directness and clarity. If some of the subtleties and sub-textual touches were glossed over, well, that too was probably a sensible choice. Better to miss an implication or two than experiment with a half-familiar script and make wrong guesses. By the time the play reached its harsh and unrelenting climax in the next-to-last scene, McQuiston was emotionally right up there in sync with his aristocratic African American wife Kate, played with steely precision by Ayanna Blount, and his dowdy one-time working class girlfriend Margaret, acted by the dynamic and wonderful Sherry Kafalas. Margaret has arrived to find herself the lone guest at a non-existent birthday party, having misunderstood a phone message canceling the event. Urged on by Kate, she stays put and ends up spewing out a series of ugly secrets from her past life with Mike in his old South Side days.
The trip to Chestnut Hill all starts when Margaret is fired from her cashier job by Dollar Store local manager Steve, played with touching earnestness and bursts of surprise-wit by Brandon Burns. He’s sorry, but she’s been too often late for work and guilty of a succession of other lapses caused by the heartaches and thousand natural shocks of being poor while at the same time caring for a seriously retarded full-grown daughter. Secure only in her reputation as a good mother and loyal friend she is pushed to accept the unexpected party invitation by two Bingo buddies, her ditsy kitch-artist landlady Dottie, played by Faith Collins-Beetty, and her explosively angry neighbor Jean, played by Virginia Bell. This trio erupts into hilarious action from the moment they appear for a feisty and confused confab about poor Margaret’s unemployment. If there’s a fault in the production, it may be that they start right out on such a high note of perfectly timed raucous comedy that there’s only enough room to maintain but not to build on the intensity, though Bell may accomplish that briefly with a final explosion of raunchy rage at the end of Act I.
It’s powerful and thought-provoking and will play weekends through June 22, with James Brady back in the cast by June 6th.
Meanwhile, Paper Wing says even those who re-booked will see Kate Bradley Faber, who will continue to play Susan in Nerve, Fridays and Saturdays at 8, till it closes on June 28th.